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Offending the Audience

Peter Handke's hour-long exercise about the nature of theater no longer inspires shock and awe. logo
John Russo, Ivory Aquino, Erin Roth, and Felipe Bonilla
in Offending the Audience
(© Max Ruby)
To put it bluntly: Offending the Audience, now getting a revival at the Flea Theatre, doesn't. Peter Handke's hour-long exercise undoubtedly did inspire shock and awe in 1966 when the 22-year-old unleashed the play on German patrons only somewhat alerted by the provocative title to what they might expect. But in the intervening 42 years, too many works have been lobbed from stages in which ticket buyers are harangued about the ossification of traditional theater. So now rather than offending the seat-fillers, the Handke polemic runs the risk of boring them into advanced catatonic states.

To be sure, there's some initial fun in watching the 21-member cast, made up of members from the Flea's resident troupe, The Bats, spout lines like "What is the theater's is not rendered unto the theater here. Here you don't receive your due. Your curiosity is not satisfied. No spark will leap across from us to you. You will not be electrified. These boards don't signify a world." But the conceit not only quickly loses interest; the extended talk about the nature of time especially begins to sound like pretentious gibberish. So does the repeated pronunciation of the word "theater" as "thee-ah-tuhrrr."

A play only 60 minutes or so long seems to take hours reaching its longed-for conclusion, which it finally does in a long list of supposedly offensive epithets with which the cast baits those sitting with tolerant politesse before them. The hardly offended rank-and-file are dunned with phases like "you milquetoasts," "you gargoyles," "you hucksters," "you antediluvian monstrosities," "you clique of Babbitts." Surprisingly left out of this toothless verbal gumming is "you critics" -- which might truly have insulted those audience members who aren't.

I understand why director Jim Simpson was drawn to the property: It can accommodate a large cast. And he does keep the collective on the move with precision. But this might not be the most apt assemblage. If Handke's declarations and accusations were issued from the mouths of older actors who had something of the world-weary stage veteran about them, the complex text would possibly carry weight.

As it is, the Bats -- dressed in black on an all-black stage -- look like nothing so much as models hired for a Calvin Klein fragrance commercial. When they address the spectators, it's as if they're children spitefully chiding their elders and betters. Moreover, they evidence the same beetle-browed conviction Donald Trump musters when firing one of his so-called apprentices. There is, though, a sultry distaff member with a big-lipped pout and a husky contralto voice who certainly knows how to draw attention to herself. Can she act? Will it matter?

Ironically, there is a point in the script where Handke is telling the audience what they've begun to experience as a result of the assault on their intellects and senses. He says, "You forget to look at your watch." That's what he thinks!

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